Ofcom must be seen as impartial. And that starts at the top
Ofcom’s regulation of the BBC has been notable by its absence. The situation is unsustainable – there will have to be a big change, starting with a new chair, says Lord Adonis
Ofcom is the broadcasting regulator. This role is vital to our democracy at any time, but it recently became still more important because of Brexit and acute sensitivity and controversy about the impartiality of the media.
The role of Ofcom itself has also become more sensitive because it now has responsibility for regulating the BBC, a role it took on from the BBC’s governors as part of the radical reform of the state broadcaster which introduced a conventional board to manage the BBC without ultimate regulatory control.
It is essential that Ofcom commands confidence as impartial. This obviously starts at the top with its chair and deputy chair.
The problem is that it’s chair – Lord Burns – and recently retired deputy chair – Lady Noakes, do not and did not command such confidence. The fact that I am saying this, as a former Labour Cabinet minister accustomed to working across parties, should signal how serious is the situation. I am raising the crisis in the House of Lords this week.
The position of Lady Noakes, who retired in May, was mindboggling. She is not only a Conservative peer who takes the whip and votes with the government consistently. She is also an extreme Brexiteer who voices her pro-Brexit views frequently in and out of the House of Lords. And she is brutally dismissive of those holding contrary views, telling the Lords for example that ‘nothing will satisfy the Commission apart from our subjugation to the EU on its terms and without any prospect that we could prosper once we left’.
This situation caused profound disquiet within Ofcom itself, particularly in relation to the Ofcom committee immediately responsible for media content regulation. Its chair, Bill Emmott, the former editor of the Economist, left Ofcom after sharp internal disagreements and the regulator has not recovered.
In this crisis it was essential that the new chair of Ofcom appointed last year should command complete confidence. But precisely the reverse is the case.
Lord Terry Burns, the new chair, caused disbelief in the House of Lords in April when he voted with the government against legislation for a European customs union. This is arguably the single most controversial issue in British politics – and it is especially controversial among critics of the BBC who claim that the state broadcaster’s coverage of Brexit has been inadequate and biased.
I raised the issue directly with Lord Burns and received a bland, dismissive response. Before his Ofcom appointment he had repeatedly voted with the government on Brexit, which ought to have made him especially scrupulous about impartiality. Lord Tony Hall, the director-general of the BBC, never speaks or votes on issues of controversy in the Lords. Indeed, he barely attends the House, whereas Lord Burns is an active member whose views are well known.
This is all the more serious because Ofcom’s regulation of the BBC has been notable by its absence. The rules it has put in place for considering complaints about impartiality and content at the BBC are so restrictive as to be almost inoperable. The one voice that has been totally silent throughout the controversy about the BBC and its coverage of Brexit has been Ofcom’s.
As I see it, the BBC is in effect regulating itself, and when in doubt the BBC and Ofcom defer to the government. This situation is unsustainable and there will have to be big change. It should start with a new chair of Ofcom.
Andrew Adonis is a Labour peer